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Blue Jackets decimated on first day of NHL free agency

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Every July 1, a lot of attention is paid to what was gained by the many teams that made big signings. By comparison, relatively little attention is given to the teams that lost a guy or two or three.

Usually, when we talk about the literal losers of free agency day, it’s through the lens of one big guy taking a deal elsewhere. The Islanders and Tavares, for instance. Usually, those teams lose their biggest name and try to move on as best they can, often making a few deals to tinker around the edges rather than overpay to fill the gaping hole that’s been blasted into the top of their depth chart.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are that team this year, with Artemi Panarin. Oh, and Sergei Bobrovsky. And Matt Duchene too.

It’s rare you see a team lose two high-profile players to free agency. Let alone their two best players. And let alone on top of losing the biggest acquisition of last season’s trade deadline, as well as another deadline deal in Ryan Dzingel. And yet, here stands Jarmo Kekalainen, bereft of any free agents he might have sought to re-sign and, it seems, of answers as well.

Yes, he reeled in Gustav Nyquist for what may or may not end up being a decent contract (four years at $5.5 million per), and re-upped Ryan Murray (two years, $4.6-million AAV) and Joonas Korpisalo (one year, $1.15 million). But if you lose three players of that caliber, plus Dzingel — who remains unsigned as of this writing — and replace them with that group, it’s a major concern.

Remember, this is a team that went all-in to scrape into the playoffs when it had Panarin and Bobrovsky already, and still needed to acquire Duchene and half the league to make it. Was sweeping the Lightning and getting crunched by Boston worth it? We’re about to find out, but I wouldn’t be optimistic.

Panarin, left, and Duchene, right, were two of the stars the Blue Jackets lost in free agency.
Panarin, left, and Duchene, right, were two of the stars the Blue Jackets lost in free agency. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Starting from the net out, Bobrovsky wasn’t great last year and will certainly have Florida regretting his new deal in three or four years, but he was above average. You can’t say the same thing for Korpisalo, the team’s new de facto No. 1 goaltender. Last season he had just an .897 save percentage. He also had an .897 the year prior. He’ll be backed up by Elvis Merzlikins, a 25-year-old who was fourth in the Swiss league in save percentage last season (.921) but has never played in North America.

It’s hard to overstate how much of a step back this is. The Blue Jackets go from having a world-class goaltender to what could, potentially, be the worst battery in the league.

The defense is actually decent, as long as Kekalainen can get a PR win and lock down Zach Werenski sooner than later and avoid an offer sheet. When you go Werenski, Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, and take your pick between a few low-cost veterans, you’re not in terrible shape. Jones and Werenski in particular are borderline-great defenders, and there’s basically no change and no need to change, unless you want to throw silly money at, say, Jake Gardiner, who remains unsigned at this point.

Those guys did a great job keeping the puck away from Bobrovsky and Korpisalo last year (sixth in scoring chances against per 60 at full strength last season, seventh in high-dangers against), but they’ll likely have to do even better to support Korpisalo (who likely just isn’t good) and a rookie who’s never played competitive hockey on an NHL rink for any long stretch of time. Can they? Don’t hold your breath, and again, that’s considering this is a group you have plenty of reason to like.

The real problem is up front, where Nyquist is a nice addition but it really is putting a high-quality Band-Aid on a bazooka wound. He’s about three quarters of the player Panarin was last year, which is still quite good, and one imagines he’ll get similar use as he did in Detroit, where he was more of a central figure in the offense than how San Jose used him after the trade.

But they’re already saying Nyquist will be used as a top-line forward for Columbus, probably alongside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. That’s a second-line winger in a first-line role and you can ask any number of teams how that’s worked out for them over the years, especially with free agent signings who are 30 when their new deals start.

Plus, if you add in the expected value Duchene would have provided (something comfortably around two wins), Nyquist might not even match that after a great contract year in which he set a career high in points at 60. Gone are the days of him being a 25-plus goal guy, while Duchene put up 25-plus three of the last four years and cashed in 55-plus points in seven of his 10 seasons, with only one falling short in the last five.

Basically, Nyquist is being used as a Panarin replacement — though Panarin has never had fewer than 27 goals and 74 points in his four seasons — but he’s basically Duchene in a best-case scenario, and he’s likely to decline. And this, too, is a contract I mostly like (mainly because it’s relatively low-cost).

The thing is, though, that there might be more on the way. Because Duchene didn’t re-sign, Columbus keeps its first-round pick, so we might see an offer sheet or something — not that you should be holding your breath for that, either — and the team can still add from some of the talent that’s floating around out there on Day 2.

But by WAR, the Blue Jackets lost about 6.6 wins from Panarin, Duchene, and Dzingel (the two trade guys are full-season numbers, obviously) and another 3.5 from Bobrovsky. Even if you think those guys collectively punched above their weight, let’s call that eight wins above replacement.

They got back about two with Nyquist, if he can replicate last year’s success, and will likely lose some (or even quite a bit) with Korpisalo getting a bigger role. There aren’t a ton of Day 2 adds they could make, including with an offer sheet to someone as good as Brayden Point, that are going to make up the difference. Or even come close.

And for a team that crept into the playoffs two points ahead of Montreal, that can’t inspire a lot of confidence. Kekalainen still has a lot of money to spend, but increasingly, not much worth spending it on. He still has some assets at his disposal as well.

So yeah, it’s hard to see these guys getting back into the playoffs as things stand. Gotta hope the fans think the Tampa sweep was worth it.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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